HL Deb 18 July 1923 vol 54 cc1161-7

Lord BLEDISLOE had given Notice to ask the Leader of the House whether the official statement issued from the Statistical Branch of the Ministry of Agriculture, to the effect that from some points of view it may be considered that the home contribution to the nation's food supply is fully as great as can be expected from the area of land available, represents the considered view of His Majesty's present Government, and, if so, if he will say from what point of view such a proposition, so entirely opposed to the war-time policy and pronouncements of successive Coalition Governments and to the opinion of all leading agricultural experts, is deemed worthy of serious consideration.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I must apologise to your Lordships for continuing a discussion of one branch of this subject by putting a Question to the Leader of the House in respect of a statement which has appeared in the Statistical Report of the Ministry of Agriculture during the last month. Perhaps I had better read the whole paragraph, because I may mention that when attention was drawn in the public Press to what I think is this rather unfortunate paragraph, the Minister of Agriculture replied that the context was not taken into account in summing up the whole of these statistics under the head of the home production of Great Britain in relation to the total supply. I may incidentally mention that the summing up omits all reference to cereals, which are dealt with in another part of the Report, and confines itself to potatoes, poultry, eggs, milk and milk products, and wool.

This is the, paragraph: These figures may be used to point to the extent of the dependence of Great Britain on imports, whether from Ireland or other parts of the Empire or from foreign countries. Now comes this sentence, about which I am asking my Question:— From another point of view it may be considered that, having regard to the dense population of this country and its relatively small area the home contribution is fully as great as can be expected from the area of land available. Then, follows this qualifying sentence: But it must be admitted that these ligures emphasise the magnitude of the market which lies at the door of the British agriculturist and suggest that an expansion of home production in at least some of these directions ought not to be a matter of impossibility. Now I ask—because this particular paragraph had been taken out of its context and has appeared in a very large number of newspapers, and repeated widely amongst the agricultural community and amongst agricultural students—I want to ask the Leader of the House from what point of view it may be considered that we have reached the limits of production of food in this country, because if this statement is not strictly accurate surely it is most unwise to make it.

I am not going to suggest that the anticipations of certain statesmen of a few years ago as to the potentialities of food production in this country were v ell founded, or were not exaggerated. I always thought that they were greatly exaggerated. But, on the other hand, surely it is most injudicious to minimise unduly the possibilities of food production in this country. As a matter of fact, this particular statement is, in my judgment, calculated to demonstrate, first of all, a sort of smug complacency on the part of that Department which is mainly responsible for increased food production, and is also calculated to cause considerable dispute among those who are seeking, either in the world of research or in the world of education, by scientific methods to increase the intensification of food production, or to instruct agricultural students as to the possibilities of future production.

I do not know whether the noble Marquess is going to suggest that there is, in fact, any ground for what I consider (to put it at its lowest) a somewhat slipshod statement, but, if he does, I should like to remind him and your Lordships that there have been periods in the not very distant history of this country when, on the reduced agricultural area of this country, a very much larger production has been attained than is attained at the present time. From 1840 to 1850 we were very nearly self-supporting. We were feeding 24,000,000 of our population on home-grown wheat. In 1914 we were feeding only 8,000,000, or one-third of the number we were feeding in 1850. In fact, we grew in 1914, and are growing now, just enough to feed our rural population, the whole of our urban population's requirements being obtained, in effect, from across the seas.

In 1874 the land under the plough was 17,000,000 acres—that is omitting temporary pastures—in 1914 it was no more than 12,750,000 acres. I have been trying, with some difficulty, to find out what actually was the cultivated area, which includes, of Course, not merely arable land but grass in the year 1850 and in subsequent years down to the present time. I have consulted my noble friend Lord Ernie, who is a great authority on this subject, and I ascertained from him and from other sources that from 1850 to about 1870 the actual cultivated area of this country was about the same as it is at the present time. It is a rather remarkable fact that, in spite of the increase of our towns and of our town population, the invasion of our agricultural areas was not, in fact, such as materially to reduce the cultivated area of this country. But, as a matter of fact, about five years ago, for no very apparent reason, there was, according to the statistics, a very serious reduction in the cultivated area of England and Wales—statistics which the Minister of Agriculture in another place has been wholly unable to explain. But, in any case, the reduction has not, during the last fifty years, even on the most exaggerated estimate, been more than one-seventh of the whole. But during that period our breadstuffs output has been reduced by no less than two-thirds. I should like very much to ask, in the light of those figures, whether it could possibly be said that, from any point of view, the home contribution now is fully as great as can be expected from the area of land available.

Before sitting down I should like to remind your Lordships of what has happened contemporaneously in other countries. In Denmark about six-sevenths of the area of the country is under agricultural cultivation, but what is still more remarkable is that in Denmark preponderantly, as well as in other countries, there has been a steady increase in the yield of wheat and other cereals per acre. For the last forty years we have been practically stationary at round about thirty-two bushels per acre. In Denmark, where once the yield was much lower than ours, they had got to thirty-eight bushels in 1880, to forty-three bushels in 1910, and to no less than forty-six bushels in 1922. Denmark is now producing at least fifty per cent. per acre more from her land than we are for the same area. In 1914 Germany was feeding seventy-five people for every 100 acres of cultivated land—that we have on the authority of Sir Thomas Middleton—compared to our forty-five to fifty. This figure excludes (and this is rather material) the whole of the production of potatoes intended for industrial purposes, and it also includes, of course, their wine production, which is fairly considerable. According to von Schwerin-Löwitz, the President of the German Council of Agriculture, the total production in Germany from 80,000,000 acres before the war was of the value of £700,000,000, expressed, of course, in English money at the then rate of exchange. From our 50,000,000 acres under cultivation in the United Kingdom we had a money return of only £200,000,000, and that is about the figure which may be deemed to be correct at the present time. Or, summing it up, the gross yield per acre for Germany was £9, and the gross yield for the United Kingdom was, and is, £4.

I am always rather apprehensive about exaggerating agricultural figures, but, speaking with some little up-to-date knowledge of these matters, and finding myself in the position of chairman both of the oldest agricultural research station in the country and also of the oldest agricultural college, I venture to say unhesitatingly that, with due Government encouragement, founded upon conviction, and with a continuous and settled agricultural policy, there is no reason why we in this country should not produce at least twice the quantity of breadstuffs that we are producing at the present time. I think it is a little hard upon those who are engaged in the work of scientific research into methods of increasing agricultural output that they should he faced with official statements such as this, published widespread throughout the British Press, to the effect that we have now reached from one, point of view (whatever that may mean) the limit of food production in this country. I hope that, unless this statement can be in some sense justified, it will be cut out of this official Report, as being calculated to do a good deal of harm, and certainly to do no good.

There is only one other thing I desire to say, and it is this. It has always been an old tradition among Government statisticians in this country that they state facts and figures and leave it to others to make deductions and conclusions, and upon those figures, if necessary, to found a policy. This tradition has not been adhered to in this document. I venture to think that the old tradition was the better one, and that it is more the proper province of statisticians to set down facts and figures and to leave it to others to make deductions.


My Lords, my noble friend is a most vigilant watch-dog in respect of all agricultural matters and, if I may venture to say so, has earned the gratitude of all of us and of the, agricultural community for the work which he has done for so many years on behalf of agriculture. The existence of my noble friend and others who, like him, have the cultivation, the knowledge and the opportunity to devote themselves to these subjects, goes a long way in promoting the success of the movement towards better agriculture. I can assure him that, however hard are the words he may use to the Ministry of Agriculture and the Government in respect of agriculture, we value his work for the common cause so highly that we shall not resent them.

He has discovered a passage which he thinks is very misleading. All of us make statements which, I am sorry to say, can be criticised, and criticised with truth, as being not so perfectly expressed as they might be. I am willing to admit that this particular passage might have been better expressed. But, surely, you have to look at the substance of this matter. The point of view to which reference is made in the passage is, I am assured, not in the least the point of view of the Ministry of Agriculture nor, indeed, is it the point of view of the author of the Report, though it is a point of view which is very commonly held. If I may say so, with respect, it is a great danger in our country that there is at times a degree of self-satisfaction in the success of particular departments of English public life which ministers to depress the hope of improvement. Now it is to resisting that very tendency that my noble friend's life is devoted, and I am sure that in doing, so be will receive the full co-operation of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Government.

If he will be good enough to read again the last sentence of the Report to which reference has been made, he will see that it says that it must be admitted that these figures emphasise the magnitude of the market which his at the door of the British agriculturist and suggest that an expansion of home production in at least some of these? directions ought not to be a matter of impossibility. It is moderately expressed, no doubt, but it is obvious that it means that there ought to be expansion, and that there is full opportunity for expansion in the domain of the production of these commodities. That, of course, is the policy of the Government, as my noble friend knows and would willingly testify. That policy is to support all sorts of activities.

Not merely in words which are vain things, after all, even when they are written down, but in the agricultural policy of the Government, we are anxious for agricultural education. We are anxious for research. We have done something to improve, or we hope to do something to improve, live stock and to prevent diseases of animals. All these things are, in fact, an encouragement of those increased home supplies for which my noble friend contends. I should be very sorry if it were thought that there was any want of enthusiasm on the part of the Government for that progress. If I may be allowed in one sentence to refer to the debate which has just concluded I should be very sorry if anything that I said led your Lordships or the country to think that we were not alive to the importance of it. Of course we are. We know very well that, apart from any question of great fiscal change, a good deal is to be done in improving the yield of the land. I do not know whether my noble friend is over-sanguine or not, but that a good deal can be done in that direction is undoubtedly true.

May I quote my own experience? After the institution of the agricultural committees during the war, I had occasion to talk to one or two of the leading practical agriculturists of my own county who were members of the county agricultural committee. They told me that they were horrified to find, on going about amongst the smaller and less progressive farmers, as it was part of their duty to do under the system which then prevailed, how backward agriculture was in many respects. Up to that time they had confined their attention to their own farms which, as they were men of very great gifts in agricultural matters, were, cultivated in the best possible way and they had no occasion to see what the less progressive farmers were doing. But when they were called upon in the performance of their official duties to go round and look at these farms, they realised how much more might be done than was being done. Certainly I am not going to say a word to discourage the thought, that we ought to develop our agriculture to a much greater extent than we do, and I earnestly hope that such may be the case.


Read 3a (according to Order), with the Amendments, and passed, and returned to the Commons.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.